Small Gestures, Big Heart

updated 11/28/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/28/2005 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Jill Wolford was being treated for stage 3 breast cancer in 1999, friends near Cary, N.C., pitched in to help her and her husband, Eric, with everything from caring for their two kids to yard work. Two years later a healthy Wolford grabbed a pail at a party and yelled, "Okay, guys! Empty your pockets. We're going to help someone else." The effort netted $724. A few days later Wolford, 41, received a letter. "You have eased my fears of how I will pay for my prescriptions," wrote a single mom with terminal breast cancer. "You have also given me faith in people." Moved, Wolford, a clinical researcher, founded the Caring Community Foundation Inc. The group has raised $225,000 and helped 122 cancer patients. Its mission: Identify a need—no matter how small—and fill it. Says Wolford: "It's the biggest celebration of my life."

Kathy Goldston, 49

"In 2003, in the midst of my chemo for a very aggressive stage 2 breast cancer and kidney cancer, I was laid off from my job at a framing business. I was wondering how I was going to manage financially. As a single mother, I wanted to protect my son Christopher, who had just turned 7. One day I went in for treatment and was really worn out. My doctor said he needed to talk to me, and I thought, 'Great. What kind of bad news am I going to get?' He handed me an envelope. Inside was a check for $1,000. I paid the rent for a month and some bills. That check helped me get from one point to another financially—and emotionally. Now my cancer's in remission, and I'm volunteering for Jill's group."

Debbie Ayscue, 37

"I was first diagnosed in 1997 with stage 4 breast cancer. They gave me two years to live without a stem-cell transplant and five years with one. I had a transplant, a mastectomy, chemo and radiation. Two years ago it recurred in my neck and I had to have chemo again. Finances are really, really hard. I've got two children and a husband working to do all he can do, and things were spiraling out of control. Then I met a lady at [Raleigh, N.C.'s] Rex Cancer Center and she said maybe Caring Community Foundation could help. I told her I needed help with the light bill. I was hoping they would pay one month just to take us out of 'final notice' status, but they paid the whole thing: $508. They never asked me any questions."

Milton Manning, 35

"I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in August 2000, just after buying my first home in Angier, N.C. I had to go on disability from my job as a shipping and receiving manager. It was a big struggle after working all my life and saving for a home, then having medical bills, medications and all the expenses you have to dish out. Janet, the nurse practitioner at my oncologist's office, became like family. I was sharing with her how I'd always been a fan of UNC-Chapel Hill basketball. Janet went to Jill's group, and they gave me $250 for the light bill, $500 for medicine and two tickets to the Carolina-Maryland game. My cancer is now in remission, but back then the game was a chance to set things aside and not think about my disease."

Mike Blankinship, 1963-2005

"My husband was diagnosed in September 2003 with small-cell lung cancer that eventually spread to his chest and spine. By the end of March, he was in a lot of pain. He couldn't sleep. The people at the hospice suggested an adjustable mattress. But it costs $1,500, and we could only afford $1,000.I went to the social worker at our hospital and said we needed help. She contacted Jill, who mailed me a check for $500. The bed arrived on May 17, and the first night Mike slept in it he got five to six hours of sleep. The second night he slept through the night. But that afternoon he was hospitalized and passed away on May 25. Had it not been for Jill's group, I believe Mike would not have had those two days."

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